What Do Babies Know?

Years ago babies were considered blank slates that parents and others wrote on.  That meant that everything about the way the baby developed was due to the parents, which also meant that parents got a lot of blame if things went wrong.  These days we know a great deal more about the capabilities of babies from the time they are born – basically arriving with skills that make them active partners in learning about the world  as well as themselves.

For some years now researchers have been trying to find out what babies know and when they know it, by asking them questions.  That may sound impossible, since babies can’t speak.  However, researchers have found ways to ask their questions by using the things babies can do, like looking.  Experiments have shown that babies show interest or preferences by looking longer at some things than at others.  For example, this method showed infants’ preference for pictures of the human face as compared to other pictures.

More recent research, like that at the Yale Infant Cognition Center, is attempting to answer more complex questions, such as whether and when babies can tell right from wrong.  In one experiment babies are shown a video in which a puppet struggles to open a box to get a toy and another puppet helps open the box.  In a repeat version, a third puppet slams the box cover shut on the one trying to get the toy.  The baby is then shown real replicas of the puppets and picks the helpful puppet either by looking at it, or an older baby by reaching for it.

In still another version of the video the puppet opening the box takes the toy and runs away with it.  The next time, the previously helpful puppet slams the cover down to prevent a repeat of the “bad” behavior.  The interpretation given to the first response is that babies prefer the “nice” puppet to the “mean” one.  The second experiment is said to show that babies already relate positively to the punishment of bad behavior.  The overall conclusion seems to be that babies at a young age understand right from wrong.

While these are interesting research findings about what babies are capable of responding to, one wonders if the interpretations made are not those of the adults.  We really don’t know what these babies make of what they are seeing and what they really understand.  The value judgments adults make of the videos used are just that – adult judgments, while the babies may be responding on a different level altogether.  For example, babies reaching for the “nice” or “good” puppet may signify an emotional response to the video rather than the moral judgment of an adult.  Perhaps it is kindness, or helpfulness that elicits the response and it is only later that adults label such behavior good or bad.

The same is true of another research experiment in empathy by another group.  A   video of a child of about 18 months using a hammer and peg game in play with his mother shows the mom pretending to be hit by the hammer.  The child laughs, and playfully hits her again, but when the mom pretends to cry he looks worried and kisses her finger.  Some observers interpret the child’s initial reaction as one of aggression.  However, others familiar with observations of young children see the response as one of anxiety. 

Often when young children get an unexpected response to their behavior from an adult they are unsure about what caused it.  They may repeat the behavior to try to figure it out.  It is as if they are asking a question, “What happened? What did I do?” A familiar example is when a child bites someone for the first time.  This brings such a strong reaction from the adults on the scene that it is almost a given that the child will do it again to try to understand the event and its response.

Interpreting and misinterpreting the meaning of children’s behavior plays a significant part in the responses of parents and later teachers.  Observing over time in nursery schools and other settings, one often sees interactions such as a child seemingly unprovoked pushing or hitting another child.  However, the observer is aware that earlier the “aggressor” had been hit or pushed by that other child.

In the same way, at times the behavior of young children is labeled “lying” or “cheating”, and children may be reprimanded or punished accordingly.  However, the behavior may have quite a different meaning in the context of a young child’s developmental level.  That doesn’t mean such behavior is acceptable and does not require a response.  Rather it may tell us that the necessary response may be one of teaching rather than punishing or criticizing.

Perhaps what we can take from the research is that starting from infancy we are inclined to be social creatures who respond well to kind and helpful behavior.  Transposing this into appropriate social behavior is the task of development and education.

Babies arrive with the tools.  The rest is up to us.

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